Maha: The Head Versus the Heart

On the eve of yet another Maha Music Festival, it's time to consider the future of "the summer music festival" in general.

Certainly Maha organizer Tre Brashear is thinking about it. Last week, Brashear sent folks in the local media a link to an article that appeared on wonderingsound.com called, "Why the Summer Music Festival Bubble is About to Burst." In the lengthy examination, author Grayson Haver Currin provided a handful of startling, well-resourced facts. 

Among them: There are more than 1,200 music-related festivals now being held in 70 countries — 847 different music festivals in North America alone. Last year promoters launched the most new music festivals ever. That increase is beginning to make competition fierce for the limited number of ticket buyers who have a bigger choice than ever as to where to spend those disposable income dollars.

The Maha Music Festival is part of this boom. Last year, more than 5,100 people flocked to Stinson Park in Aksarben Village to see The Flaming Lips, Bob Mound and a cadre of other bands. Brashear said he'll be surprised if this year's festival doesn't draw more than 7,000, many of whom are traveling to get to the show.

"Last year, 40 percent of attendees came from outside Douglas County," Brashear said. "Twenty percent came from out of state. We know there's only so many hardcore indie music fans in Omaha who will attend, so we advertise in other markets and do online advertising on social media and websites like Pitchfork and Paste."

Broadening their audience outside the region is a sell point to sponsors and donors who cover half the price of putting on the festival. "We couldn't do it without them," Brashear said. "Being a 501(c)(3) nonprofit gives us the ability to raise funds that the other festivals don't have. We need that, because we haven't gotten the crowd numbers needed to be on the radar for national advertisers."

The monster national sponsors — the Budweisers and Verizons — won't look at your festival if it doesn't draw at least 10,000, Brashear said. "And if you're a one-day festival, that's also a tough sell."

As a result, all of Maha's sponsors are local or regional companies who want to invest in an event that benefits the employees and customers who live in their community. But without that big fish money from national sponsors, attracting the big fish acts to play Maha can be a challenge. 

"(The cost of) talent is more than half our budget," Brashear said. "Every festival is trying to land the same acts, and we realize we can get into a bidding war." 

This year, Maha increased its talent budget by 50 percent over the previous year. "A couple years ago, we couldn't afford Death Cab for Cutie," Brashear said. "This year we could." Moving the festival back a week also helped free up availability of bands who are eyeing other festivals in North America and Europe. "Our biggest concern was to not have a large-scale North American competitor on the same weekend."

Despite bigger drawing bands and a bigger festival footprint — Maha is expanding to 67th Street this year and adding a Ferris wheel, among other features — ticket prices have been held to a reasonably low $50 for general admission. Brashear again pointed to donation efforts such as Omaha Gives and corporate sponsors as factors in their ability to hold the line on prices, along with an army of more than 250 volunteers who are "the key to making Maha work."

Brashear pointed to the success of large festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza for the overall festival boom. But with so many new festivals launching this year and ticket prices continuing to rise (along with the cost for talent) is the festival "bubble" about to burst? Maybe in other regions of the country, but not around here, Brashear said. 

"A lot of competing festivals have gone away. Now there's just us and (Des Moines') 80/35 Festival. There doesn't appear to be a lot of competition in this space, but we still have to compete for talent nationally."

When Maha launched in 2009, the vision was to grow it to become a Midwestern version of Coachella — a multi-day monstrosity that would take place in some mammoth field outside of town. But expectations have changed. And in the face of a festival bubble, the article seems to argue for smaller, more sustainable regional festivals like Maha. Will Maha be satisfied staying a one-day event that draws below 10,000 ticket buyers?

"I think that's the next discussion," Brashear said. "There are business people who would like to see us expand to two days, but we surveyed concert-goers and asked if they'd rather have a one-day or two-day festival and people are still supportive of Maha being one day. That framework is feasible, but if we stay one day, it limits sponsor dollars. We won't get the high-priced talent that would bring even more people from out of town."

It's a discussion that Brashear and the other three original Maha Board members -- Tyler Owen, Mike App and Mike Toohey -- will have a smaller say in. "We four founders are largely stepping back after this year," Brashear said.  "We still have some roles (and will continue to help with sponsorships and donations), but we're actively bringing people in and creating committees and a larger board. The more people the better, and the less stress. Those who have been here the whole time have been on a treadmill. It's time to turn it over to young blood."

Brashear said a multi-day festival with no paid staff (Maha is all volunteer) would be very challenging. "When does someone get hired and what do they do?" he asked. "If there was an employee dedicated to Maha, that would make a lot of things easier.

"Part of the challenge of the new board is to decide where they want to take it. I think there's a desire to grow the event, but growth can only come with sponsors and donors. It's a head versus heart proposition."

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 08:34 am
on Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

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